The Rise of Kappa

The Written Sarcasm Problem,
The Visual-Language Evolution,
& The Emoticon That Bridges Them

by Marc V. Calderaro


Written Language Has a TERRIBLE Problem[!]

Sarcasm, and irony broadly, have become inarguably more integral and commonplace in our daily communication. So common in fact, that without trying, sometimes people will have entirely sarcastic interactions. Irony has become so intertwined with earnest, they’re often indistinguishable. Just look at all that “literally” kerfuffle — the word has taken on both its original and hyperbolic definitions simultaneously. That’s an outstanding feat, and highlights just how interwoven non-literal statements have become in everyday conversations.

It’s hard not the think about the old Simpsons gag, where one Lollapalooza goer asks the other, “Are you being sarcastic, dude?”
The response: “I don’t even know anymore.”

“Are you being sarcastic, dude?”

Most young, quasi-young, and young-at-heart people versed in this linguistic evolution can pick up on the proper context clues when such everyday irony is spoken, but written language has been slower to catch on.

Seriously, this meaning is pretty clear, right?

It can still be difficult to distinguish sarcasm delivered via text, tweet, or chat. How to clearly, efficiently, and naturally state “Don’t take my words literally” is a vexing issue. Personally, I’ve had many awkward interactions because I used text sarcasm the same way I use spoken sarcasm.

The more conversational, and less formal, our written communication becomes, the more this problem becomes pronounced. We’ve yet to master the transition of everyday sarcasm to the written word.

But not for lack of trying.

There have been plenty of pushes by linguists and other interested parties to solve the conundrum of indicating written sarcasm. Here’s just a short list of forwarded suggestions:

“Wow, that movie was real good[!]

Oh really?”

“Yeah, what clever dialogue during all those endless action sequences.~

I’m not even paying the $2. Come get me, intellectual-property cops.

Additionally, people have suggested using italics facing the opposite way, and, perhaps the most notorious, is a trademarked “SarcMark” that I can’t even use without paying $2 or something. (True Story!)

What do all these notations have in common? No one uses them. Call me a hater, but almost every time a linguist manufactures a solution to a language problem, it fails horribly. Feel free to call this type of failure an “Esperanto.”

(I know I’m leaving out “Temherte Slaq” (“¡”) — used in Ethiopia, and one of the best examples of non-literal punctuation integrated into language. However, I’m limiting myself to English, and no, Josh Greenman’s attempt to adopt Temherte Slaq to English hasn’t really taken off. Sorry, Josh.)

Language evolves of its own volition, and it’s hard to forcefully direct it. There have been more natural-feeling attempts to fix this sticky wicket — like “#sarcasm” on Twitter, or even “</sarcasm>.” But the overall clunkiness limits the reach of both. The shortened version “/s” is popular on message boards, especially the message board du jour, Reddit, but it’s yet to move off the boards and into the everyday.

However, there’s been a recent, innovative solution on the rise that has proven a potential, eventual solution. So what is this less forced, more intuitive solution? To answer that, we have to talk about something else first.

⸮Oh, the Visual-Language Evolution; That’s Cool.

One of the most exciting changes the internet has brought to communication is the emerging use of visuals — pictures, videos, emojis, gifs — to express things traditionally reserved for words. The newfound ease of using images in conversation at least partially explains this trend. (Though our recent obsession with pop culture surely feeds it as well.) When a particular situation reminds me of a scene from pop culture, I don’t have to quote the movie/TV show/etc.; I can just get the clip. (See above, The Simpsons — though for introductory purposes, I used both words and the video.)

Though it’s easy to mock “txt spk” like “rofl” and “r u,” language consistently evolves to become more efficient in communicating ideas, and these visual evolutions are no exception. To my film-soaked brain, communicating a complex idea or feeling with one image from a movie scene can be the simplest, most effective way to get out everything that’s in my head — and it’s no more than a few clicks away.

Thought about this one reading Twitter comments concerning my last article. Shout out, @gangleri2000!

The way visual memes are used demonstrates this evolution further. The images used in memes often garner independent meaning, devoid of the original context. You don’t need to see either Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory or Futurama to understand the nuances of the ideas conveyed by the two memes to the left, once you’ve seen them often enough.

I recognize both examples do contain words as well. That’s because speaking any language fluently takes time. To many internet dwellers, memes like these are old hat, and can be used without textual accompaniment. To others who don’t frequent, say, imgur, Tumblr, Reddit, Facebook, 4chan, Instagram, Yik Yak, Tinder, (believe me, there are many people) this language is foreign.

But once you understand what the images accompanying the words are conveying, it’s easy to imagine that just pasting that picture of “Condescending Wonka,” without any words at all, could be an efficient way to communicate a precise idea.

Throughout the internet, visual communication has evolved to express complex emotions and ideas, and in varying ways depending on the subculture — with some of the most integral thoughts in each subculture developing visual accompaniment first. The internet has its own little corners, and entire subculture trends develop and mature quickly — with new ideas sprouting, maturing, and dying all within a matter of months.

Ok, now we can talk about this potential solution — almost.

Twitch.tv — The Only Streaming Site on the Web.~

The subculture important for this article is the Twitch chat. Twitch.tv is the premiere site for streaming games. Twitch allows you to easily watch people play whatever game you want, with channels broken down both by streamer and by game. Video games like League of Legends and physical games like Magic: The Gathering are broadcast to fans around the world on Twitch.

Twitch offers a chat function, enabling watchers to interact real time with the streamer and other watchers. Twitch has incorporated various “emotes” into the chat client (like “emoji,” it’s a variation of “emoticon”), and even allows streamers to create their own emotes that can be used only by subscribing to their particular stream. Here are just a few emotes available:

If you’re not versed in the subculture(s), that above picture can look like a foreign language. In some respects it is. Though emotes are most commonly used to enhance, intensify, or explain a written statement, there are certainly situations that just call for a “FailFish” emote or two.

Now, we finally get to the potential solution to the written irony problem.

Kappa, Kappa, Kappa, Kappa, Kappa Ka-meleon

Among those emotes, one in particular has gained a life all its own — the emote called “kappa” (see left, also above far right, third row from the bottom).

To give you an idea of its scope, as of February 2014, the kappa emote was used around 900,000 times a day. As of this article’s writing, it’s being used an average of 875 times a minute. Those numbers are staggering, especially considering that’s only what’s being tracked on Twitch.

Kappa is a photo of Josh “Kappa” DeSono, a former Justin.tv chat-client worker, and though not designed as such, the emote is ubiquitously used at the end of statements to denote sarcasm, irony, or just general trolling. It’s a clear indicator of “Don’t take what I just said at face value.” How that got started, I have no idea. But to the Twitch-chat subculture, kappa has solved the written sarcasm problem without linguists.

Saying — “Wow, that play was really good. [kappa]” is completely understood. A vexing problem is fixed in a subculture without any direction to do so — just by sheer natural processes.

I sat on a stream for like 30 seconds to grab these. Seems like they’re speaking an English dialect, no?

Though this development is far from unique — jargon constantly emerges in subcultures — the impact of this one, and the breadth of its reach — stretching almost every gamer in the world — strengthens its potential lifespan.

The Internet Will Surely Solve All Our Problems

I understand the counterarguments. There are many subculture linguistic traits that rise and fall with equal speed, and visual language is the same — rage comics are a perfect example. And jargon rarely reaches past its intended subculture.

Kappa might be no different. I would guess that many Twitch users would say that kappa has already fallen out of favor, and that only the little kids are using it now — its death inevitable. Maybe they’re right.

However, unlike a lot of jargon, kappa solves a problem inherent to the broader language as a whole. Additionally, the use of kappa has reached a point where streamers have started to say “kappa” out loud.

Unlike previous examples, like “rage-face” or “/s,” the ease with which “kappa” can be spoken might give it more legs than other internet-only fads. It’s already expanded beyond Twitch.

In a year’s time, kappa might disappear into internet obscurity, along with dramatic chipmunk, chocolate rain, and Cindy Margolis. But maybe not.

If nothing else, kappa’s innovation helps reframe the way we view “internet jargon,” the way we relate to language visually, and demonstrates how language always manages to naturally develop solutions to its problems that linguists seem unable to fix.

So who knows?
Maybe we should do as this random person on the internet says:

I have no idea what’s going on in this picture, but it works. Just like when I use a word whose definition I don’t really know.
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